LAND, WEATHER AND GEOGRAPHY OF TURKMENISTAN

LAND AND GEOGRAPHY OF TURKMENISTAN

Located in southwestern Central Asia and bordered by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to the north and northeast, the Caspian Sea to the west, and Iran in the south. Turkmenistan covers 488,100 square kilometers (188,456 square miles), making it slightly larger than California, or France. Landlocked with a shore on the Caspain Sea, it is the second largest Central Asian nation republic after Kazakhstan, one of the southernmost former Soviet republics and one of the most sparely population nations in the world. Occupying 2.2 percent of the former Soviet Union, it ranks fourth among the former Soviet republics in terms of size.

With the exception of mountains in the east, Turkmenistan is mostly flat and arid and covered by plains, desert, rolling hills and dry steppe. The Kara-Kum (Garagum, “Black Sand)” covers 80 percent of Turkmenistan — the western and central low-lying desolate portions of the country — and is mostly uninhabited. Covering all but the border regions of the country, it features scrubby sauxal bushes, large crescent-shaped sand dunes and cracked, baked-clay surfaces known as takyr. The eastern part of Turkmenistan is a plateau. East of the Caspian Sea The Kara-Kum and the Kyzyl-Kum (“Red Sand”) desert of Uzbekistan merge, and together form the forth largest desert in the world.

The relatively low Kopet Dag (meaning “many mountains”) is an escarpment that run for 1,450 kilometers (900 miles), mostly along the border between Turkmenistan and Iran. The mountains here are jagged and dry and prone to earthquakes, with large dunes running up against them. A smaller range of mountains extends along the Kazakhstan border. The highest point in Turkmenistan is 3,139-meter-high (10,299-foot-high) Ayrybaba is located where Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan all meet.

Turkmenistan measures about 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) from east to west and 650 kilometers (430 miles) from north to south and is located on southern section of the great Eurasian plains. Only about 3 percent of the country is good for agriculture (compared to 21 percent in the United States). Most of this is land irrigated by the Amu-Darya (river) and the Kara-kum Canal and is used primarily for growing cotton and wheat. Trees are a rare sight. Most of the population is concentrated on the borders, in the foothills of the Kopet Dagh, in the oases of the Murgab and Tejen rivers, along the Amu Darya in the east, the Caspian Sea shore in the west, and the western border of Khorezm in the north.

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “Much of Turkmenistan is desert wasteland, scrubby bushes, and dusty boulders; lizards skitter through a landscape like cat litter. In Soviet times, Turkmenistan’s few towns and cities were outposts, as benighted as those of any imperial colony, where people in colorful clothes surrendered their reserves of gas and oil to the Russian overlords. [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 ~]

Central Asia

Central Asia embraces Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, five former Soviet republics. Sometimes western China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, south-central Russia and/or Mongolia are included depending on whether the countries are grouped together by language family, geography, horseman-nomadic traditions or sharing the “stan” suffix.” The core five Central Asian nation, plus western China (Xinjiang) are sometimes called Turkestan (Turkistan) because many of the people that live there speak Turkic languages. The term “Inner Asia” is also used. It includes Tibet and Manchuria, with a particular focus on people with horseman-nomadic traditions.

Central Asia has traditionally provided a bridge between Asia and Europe, which meet on the Eurasia steppe. The region is often regarded as exotic because its association with the Silk Road, the Great Game, and cultures and people that Westerners have traditionally known little about. The regions inaccessibility during the Soviet area only augmented this reputation.

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan together occupy about 7.5 million square kilometers, an area around half the size of the continental United States or two thirds the size of the European Union. Central Asia is defined geographically by the Caspian Sea to the west, the northern part of the Kazakhstan steppe to the north, the Altay Mountains and Taklamakan Desert of China to the east and the Pamirs and southern Turkmenistan deserts in the south. The dying Aral Sea lies between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Central Asia is mostly arid and landlocked, with steppes in the north and harsh deserts in the south. Majestic mountains — in particular the Tien Sien and the Pamirs — dominate the east and southeast. There are high plateaus around the mountains. The rivers that thread through the region are fed by melting snow and glaciers and carve deep valleys and ravines. Many important agricultural areas are irrigated, sometimes using ancient qanat systems of underground canals; other times canals built during the Soviet era. Important crops include cotton, wheat, melons, rice and vegetables. Around the mountains and in the steppes people herd sheep, goats and horses. Scattered around the region are large deposits of oil, natural gas, gold, aluminum and other valuable minerals. The largest oil and natural gas deposits are in and around the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Geographical Data for Turkmenistan

Topography: Most of Turkmenistan’s surface is flat desert. The Garagum (Kara Kum) Desert occupies all of central Turkmenistan, from the northern to the southern border. The Kopetdag Range extends along the central part of the southern border with Iran. In far eastern Turkmenistan, the western extent of the Pamir–Alay Range includes the country’s highest point, Mount Ayrybaba, which is 3,137 meters high. The Kopetdag Range is prone to severe earthquakes. The Krasnovodsk and Ustirt plateaus dominate northwestern Turkmenistan. Along the Caspian coast, elevations are at or below sea level for as much as 150 kilometers inland. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007 **]

Total area: 488,100 square kilometers, country comparison to the world: 53. Land area: 469,930 square kilometers; water: 18,170 square kilometers. Borders: total: 4,158 kilometers border countries (4): Afghanistan 804 kilometers, Iran 1,148 kilometers, Kazakhstan 413 kilometers, Uzbekistan 1,793 kilometers. Coastline: non with sea but Turkmenistan borders the Caspian Sea (1,768 kilometers). Maritime claims: none (landlocked) but there are claims over the Caspian Sea dependant on whether the Caspian Sea is defined as a lake or sea. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Terrain: flat-to-rolling sandy desert with dunes rising to mountains in the south; low mountains along border with Iran; borders Caspian Sea in west. Elevation extremes: lowest point: Vpadina Akchanaya -81 meters. Sarygamysh Koli is a lake in northern Turkmenistan with a water level that fluctuates above and below the elevation of Vpadina Akchanaya (the lake has dropped as low as -110 meters). Highest point: Gora Ayribaba 3,139 meters. =

Land use: agricultural and livestock herding land: 72 percent: arable land 4.1 percent; permanent crops 0.1 percent; permanent pasture 67.8 percent; forest: 8.8 percent; other: 19.2 percent (2011 est.). Irrigated land: 19,910 square kilometers (2006). Total renewable water resources: 24.77 cubic kilometers (2011). Freshwater withdrawal (domestic/industrial/agricultural):total: 27.95 cubic kilometers a year (3 percent/3 percent/94 percent); per capita: 5,752 cubic meters a year (2004). Natural resources: petroleum, natural gas, sulfur, salt. =

Disputed Territory: Boundary disputes with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were settled by treaties signed in 2001 and 2004, respectively. Maritime Claims: Turkmenistan has an ongoing dispute with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan over division of the Caspian seabed, which contains deposits of oil and other natural resources. **

Weather in Turkmenistan

The weather in Turkmenistan is predominately dry and hot and characterized by great extremes of hot and cold on a daily basis. It can be as hot as the Sahara in the summer. The deserts in southeast Turkmenistan have recorded some of the world's highest temperatures. Daytime and nighttime differences of 27 degrees C (80 degrees F) have been recorded in the deserts.

Turkmenistan has a subtropical desert climate that is severely continental. Annual temperatures are also very different: the average temperature in July of 30 to 32 degrees C lowers to -5 degrees C in winter. The average annual rainfall varies from 80 millimeters in the deserts to 400 millimeters in the mountains. At the same time the plains feature frequent hot winds and dust storms.

The winters can be characterized as both short and harsh and generally mild and dry, although occasionally cold and damp in the north. The average high in January is 2 degrees C (25 degrees F). Siberian winds can send the temperature plummeting to -24 degrees C (-10 degrees F). The snowfall is generally negligible, at best blanketing the landscape with a thin crust of icy crystals. In the mountains there are colder temperatures and more snow. Summers are long (from May through September) and very hot, and dry, By April it is already very hot. In July and August the temperatures rise above 38 degrees C (100 degrees F) everyday and are often above 43 degrees C (110 degrees F). Temperatures above 50 degrees C (122 degrees F) have been recorded in the Kara Kum Desert. Spring and autumn are the best time to visit. The days are pleasant and the nights are often chilly.

Turkmenistan has low humidity and receives very little rain, only around 19 centimeters a year (compared to more than 100 centimeters a year in the United States). Most rains falls in the spring. In the mountains there are sometimes summer rains. Spring can be very windy. Sometimes dust storms blow in that blot out the sky with fine dust particles that creeps inside building despite efforts to keep it out and force airports and bazaars to close down.

Most precipitation falls between January and May, with annual averages ranging from 300 millimeters in the Kopetdag to eighty millimeters in the northwest. The capital, Ashgabat, close to the Iranian border in south-central Turkmenistan, averages 225 millimeters of rainfall annually. Average annual temperatures range from highs of 16.8 degrees C in Ashgabat to lows of -5.5 degrees C in Dashhowuz, on the Uzbek border in north-central Turkmenistan. The almost constant winds are northerly, northeasterly, or westerly.

Physical Features of Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan's average elevation is 100 to 220 meters above sea level, with its highest point being Mount Ayrybaba (3,137 meters) in the Kugitang Range of the Pamir-Alay chain in the far east, and its lowest point in the Transcaspian Depression (100 kilometers below sea level). Nearly 80 percent of the republic lies within the Turon Depression, which slopes from south to north and from east to west. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Turkmenistan's mountains include 600 kilometers of the northern reaches of the Kopetdag Range, which it shares with Iran. The Kopetdag Range is a region characterized by foothills, dry and sandy slopes, mountain plateaus, and steep ravines; Mount Shahshah (2,912 meters), southwest of Ashgabat, is the highest elevation of the range in Turkmenistan. The Kopetdag is undergoing tectonic transformation, meaning that the region is threatened by earthquakes such as the one that destroyed Ashgabat in 1948 and registered nine on the Richter Scale. The Krasnovodsk and Üstirt plateaus are the prominent topographical features of northwestern Turkmenistan. *

A dominant feature of the republic's landscape is the Garagum Desert, which occupies about 350,000 square kilometers. Shifting winds create desert mountains that range from two to twenty meters in height and may be several kilometers in length. Chains of such structures are common, as are steep elevations and smooth, concrete-like clay deposits formed by the rapid evaporation of flood waters in the same area for a number of years. Large marshy salt flats, formed by capillary action in the soil, exist in many depressions, including the Kara Shor, which occupies 1,500 square kilometers in the northwest. The Sundukly Desert west of the Amu Darya is the southernmost extremity of the Qizilqum (Russian spelling Kyzyl Kum) Desert, most of which lies in Uzbekistan to the northeast. *

Mountains and Gorges in Turkmenistan

The Kughinang Mountains contain the highest peak of Turkmenistan — 3,137-meter-high Airibaba . In the Bolsoi (Big) Balkan mountain range in the Kara Kum Desert archeologists found the remains of Stone Age humans. Mount Syunt is known for the rare plant species that are found on its slopes. The red and orange canyons of Yuanghikala and Yyuanghusu are a breathtaking sight. [Source: advantour.com <=>]

The Lunar Mountains near Makhtumkuli village is known for its otherworldly landscape. The mountains, hills and land formations have rounded, sagging forms of pink-cream and grey — almost white colors — which change their shades after a rain and depending on humidity and location of the sun, displaying practically all the colors of the rainbow. The Lunar Mountains look more like giant cakes. There is very little vegetation. <=>

Kyrkdzhulby is an area of sand dunes in the Kara Kum Desert, featuring high, steep, red-colored barchans dunes. Archabil Gorge is a 10-kilometer-long gorge that follows of Firjuzinka, a small mountain stream. Mergenishan Gorge located along the southeast coast of Lake Sarykamysh. It is a flat bottomed winding canyon 15 to 70 meters in width and up to 35 meter-high walls. The gorge was formed by water draining froevacuation from Lake Tyunyuklyu to Lake Sarykamysh via the flat plain. <=>

Caves and Mud Volcanos in Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is famous for its caves. The best known of them are the Karlyuk caves. They are located on the slope of Kugitangtau Ridge and are considered unique enough be considered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites The Karlyuk caves contain various karst forms. Are around 60 caves with total length of 50 kilometers, with galleries, passages, halls, labyrinths. The caves are homes to many stalactites, stalagmites and stone curtains. Many of caves have not been explored yet. Kov-Ata Cave is a unique cavern with a hydrosulphuric lake and a large colony of bats. [Source: advantour.com <=>]

In western Turkmenistan there are about 30 mud volcanoes. They are of various forms and shapes. Periodically they throw up a mixture of mud, gases, water and oil. The biggest volcano is called Aligul (extinct). The most ancient is the Boyadag mud volcano. The most interesting are Geokpatlauk and Kipyushchiy Boiling Mounds in Gassankuli. There are many extinct volcanoes on the Caspian Sea coast. <=>

Crater Lake Rozoviy (Pink) Porsyghel is a lake with pink water of mud-volcanic origin. Its pink-colored waters cover the conduit of an ancient mud volcano. Not far from it on the western slopes of Chokrak plateau is Crater Lake Zapadniy (Western) Porsyghel. It boasts salty, hot water — dirty-grey in color. Hot springs can be found at Archman,Parkhai,Ovezbaba, Khodzhakainar and Edzheri.

Depressions, Plains and Plateaus in Turkmenistan

Yueroilan - duz is a deep drainless depression covering an area of 300 square kilometers). In pre-historic times it was occupied by the huge Tetis Sea in a place where volcanos were active on a sea bottom. The dome-shaped and slightly extended hills are the remains of extinct volcanoes. Between the hills there are salt marshes where table salt was mined. There are some beautiful andesite-basalt formations and weathered volcanic pillars here. [Source: advantour.com <=>]

In spring the depression fills with melted waters to formi a saline lake. During this period pelicans, flamingoes and other birds flock in this area. In summer after the water is evaporates so only salt marshes remain, goitered gazelles and argalis come to drink in the water holes. Yeroilan-duz Depression contains the remain of extinct Central Asian plants and animals. Scientists have found ostrich eggshell pieces and bones from pre-historic animals.

Akchakaya is a depression located near the city of Tashauz. Its bottom is 81 meters below sea level. Its slopes reach as high as 200 meters. Missirian Plain features ancient irrigation structures. Kaplnkir or Tigrovoye (Tiger) Plateau (near to Ashgabat) is a good place to go hiking. Chinki Plateau Ustyurt features cliffs with caves bearing traces of ancient people.

Khodzha-i-Pihl Plateau of Kugitangtau ridge is known for its nearly 1,000 well preserved Jurassic period dinosaur tracks. Altogether there are tracks from about 20 species, with rge tracks varying from 30 to 92 centimeters in length. The most unique are the dinosaur tracks found on the western slope of the Kugitangtau ridge. The oldest are about 140 million years. There are more than 500 dinosaur tracks. The quantity and variety of dinosaur make it perhaps the best place in the world to see dinosaur tracks.

Water Sources in Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan has very few rivers. All of them are found in the border areas, and due to the lack of high mountains with glaciers, shortage of rainfall and arid climate, many rivers are shallow and often dry up by late summer. The only exception is the Amu Darya, which rises in the mountains of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, flowing north of Turkmenistan. However, all the rivers are intensively used for irrigation, which takes away water supplies, scarce enough without irrigation, and as a result, some of them never reach their former riverbed. [Source: advantour.com <=>]

Almost 80 percent of the territory of Turkmenistan lacks a constant source of surface water flow. Mountains bring snowmelt water and life to a parched nation. The main rivers are located only in the southern and eastern peripheries; a few smaller rivers on the northern slopes of the Kopetdag are diverted entirely to irrigation. The most important river is the Amu Darya. Damming and irrigation uses of the Amu Darya have had severe environmental effects on the Aral Sea, into which the river flows (see Environmental Issues). The river's average annual flow is 1,940 cubic meters per second. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996]

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are critically short of water. Uzbekistan constantly accuses Kyrgyzstan of hoarding water. Turkmenistan accuses Uzbekistan of using more than fair share of water. Despite this there is a lot of waste in Turkmenistan. Water is virtually free but is rarely on all the time. Even in Ashgabat most homes lack water 24 hours a day. Some people leave their water taps on all the time so they are ready when the water comes on.

Irrigated land: 19,910 square kilometers (2006). Total renewable water resources: 24.77 cubic kilometers (2011). Freshwater withdrawal (domestic/industrial/agricultural):total: 27.95 cubic kilometers a year (3 percent/3 percent/94 percent); per capita: 5,752 cubic meters a year (2004). [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Drinking water source: A) improved: urban: 89.1 percent of population; rural: 53.7 percent of population; total: 71.1 percent of population; A) unimproved: urban: 10.9 percent of population; rural: 46.3 percent of population; total: 28.9 percent of population (2012 est.). Sanitation facility access: A) improved: urban: 100 percent of population; rural: 98.2 percent of population; total: 99.1 percent of population. B) unimproved: urban: 0 percent of populationl rural: 1.8 percent of population; total: 0.9 percent of population (2012 est.). =

Water Disputes, See ENVIRONMENTAL AND WATER ISSUES IN CENTRAL ASIA under Central Asia.

Major Rivers in Turkmenistan

Principal Rivers: The most important river is the Amu Darya, , which has a total length of 2,540 kilometers from its farthest tributary, making it the longest river in Central Asia. The Amu Darya flows across northeastern Turkmenistan, thence eastward to form the southern borders of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Other major rivers are the Tejen (1,124 kilometers), the Murgap (852 kilometers), and the Atrek (660 kilometers). [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007 **]

Amu Darya is one the two largest and most important rivers in Central Asia (the other is the Syr Darya). It originates in glaciers and steams in the Tien Shan and Pamirs mountains and flows along the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan border and empties into the Aral Sea. The 650-mile-long Kara-kum Canal runs from Amu Darya through the central part of the country. The are few other rivers. The small Tejen and Murgab Rovers flow out of the mountain near Iran but don’t get far before they are swallowed up by the desert.

The Amu Darya is vital to Turkmenistan. Entering the country on the eastern border, it flows north-west, becoming, some distance further, a natural border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The Karakum Canal, sometimes called Karakumdarya, is fed by the Amu Darya. It which runs for1445 kilometers and passes the cities of Mary, Ashgabat, Tedjen, Serdar, and ends in Balkanabad. On average, the channel takes 45 percent of the Amu Darya waters. In addition, in the lower reaches of the Amu Darya, there is the Kunyadarya channel which passes near the legendary Kunya-Urgench ruins. [Source: advantour.com <=>]

Turkmenistan's only river flowing into the Caspian Sea is Atrek. It is fed by snow and rain water from the Kopet Dag ridge and consequently becomes shallow by the end of spring. In addition, most of the water flow is taken to irrigate the surrounding lands. Other small rivers and streams, also used for irrigation, flow down the slopes of the Kopet Dag. Some of them — the Kelyat-Chai, Kyzyl-Arvat , Guza , Firyuzinka and others — flow into the Karakum Canal, while the others completely dry up in the Karakum Desert. <=>

In addition to all the rivers mentioned above, there are two relatively large rivers — the Tedjen and Murgab, which form a delta of canals and ditches watering hectares of agricultural fields. If the waters of these rivers were not used for irrigation, they would flow into the Amu Darya. <=>

The rivers in Central Asia are often brown and muddy even many hundreds of miles from their sources. This is because the water contains suspended “yellowish-grey marl, or loess” that is very fine and stays suspended in the water for a long time. One geologist wrote these minerals are “formed by the disintegration of porphyry rock carried by the wind off the surrounding mountains in the form of very fine dust” and “it gradually settled and built by the Central Asian plateau.”

Lakes and Springs in Turkmenistan

Lake Sarakamysh is the largest lake of Turkmenistan. Its area exceeds 2, 200 aquare kilometers. Sarakamysh is part of a natural reserve made for protection of water fowl — pelicans, cormorants and coots. The well-known Bakharden Cave is home of underground Lake Kow-Ata. Its covers 1, 050 square meters, has an average depth of six neters and water temperature of water 33 to 37 degrees C. The water there is distinguished by surprising purity and transparency. [Source: advantour.com <=>]

Lake Mollagara is a saline lake. The water there is so salty that the human body is pushed onto the surface like it is at the Dead Sea. The depth of the lake varies depending on the season. Some famous therapeutic mud-baths are located here. Lake Yuazkhan is a closed freshwater lake in the Kara Kum Desert. Some endangered species of fish and water fowl are found here. <=>

Lakes Archman, Berzengi,Bakharden have thermal springs with mineral-rich hydrosulphuric water. Lake Bakharden has a natural spring 60 meters below Kov-Ata cave entrance. This warm hydrosulphuric lake of 72 meters long and and 30 meters wide with the area of 108 square meters. The average depth is 10 meters. The water temperature is degrees C. The lake is very attractive due to its turquoise water and therapeutic properties. <=>

One of the most beautiful waterfalls in Turkmenistan is the Bolshoi (Big) Nokhur waterfall. The water plummets 30 meters. Equally beautiful are the Koshtemir, Umbadere and Kyrkghyz waterfalls. There are other waterfalls in the north part of the country. The Kyrkdeshk Rapids lie in a canyon to the north of Lake Sarykamysh. Mount Bayuadag is home to about 40 hot, warm and cold springs with various water formulas. Kara Bogaz Gol is a huge basin stretching to the north and the west. In one of it gorges in Sumbar Valley is picturesque Gochdemir waterfall. <=>

Earthquakes in Turkmenistan

In the 1st century B.C., Ashgabat was leveled by an earthquake and was reborn as a stop on the Silk Road and then was sacked by the Mongols.

At 8:11 p.m. Moscow Time on December 6, 2000, Turkmenistan was struck by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. The intensity of the earthquake reached VIII at its epicenter, and VI at the Turkmen capital of Ashgabad. The epicenter was located some 25 kilometers north of the city of Balkanabat and 125 kilometers southeast of Türkmenbasy. Little information about the quake leaked out of Turkmenistan. There were unconfirmed reports that the quake killed up to 11 people and injured 5 others. [Source: Wikipedia]

Ashgabat Earthquake in 1948

A massive earthquake on October 6th, 1948 leveled Ashgabat when it was part of the the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic. One of the worst earthquakes, it may have measured as high as 9 on the Richter scale. Two thirds of the population of Ashgabat and surrounding villages — more than 110,000 people, or the equivalent to almost 10 percent of the Turkmen SSR's population at the time — were killed. The technical and intellectual elite were all but wiped out. Afterwards the city was closed for five years while the bodies were recovered, the ruble was cleared and a new city was built.

The earthquake struck at 2:17 in the morning. The epicenter of the earthquake was located near the small village of Gara-Gaudan, 25 kilometers southwest of Ashgabat. Extreme damage occurred in Ashgabat and nearby villages, where almost all brick buildings collapsed, concrete structures were heavily damaged and freight trains were derailed. Damage and casualties also occurred in the Darreh Gaz area, Iran. Surface rupture was observed both northwest and southeast of Ashgabat. Many sources list the casualty total at 10,000, but a news release on 9 Dec 1988 advised that the correct death toll was 110,000. A 2007 report by the State News Agency of Turkmenistan gives a total number of up to 176,000.

According to NOAA, the epicenter of the earthquake was located at 37.95N, 58.32E, a depth 18 kilometers. The magnitude was 7.3, with an intensity of IX-X. Buildings made of raw brick were destroyed, and almost all collapsed. There was also major damage to the ferro-concrete support framework of the buildings. In the area of Ashkhabad, horizontal deformations in the ground appeared in the form of fissures and gaps... Their width was measured as 1 or several centimeters... In the northern end of Komsomol Street...the width of the cracks reached 0.1 meter. Water pipes ruptured in this area. [Source: NOAA]

Sump volcanoes formed four to five kilometers north-northwest of Ashgabat and in the Kuru-Gaudan region. Surface fissures also formed in the opposite direction of Kuru-Gaudan, 27 kilometers northwest of Ashkhabad. Therefore the surface of the rupture, partially seen on the surface extended no less than 70 kilometers.

Much destruction occurred in the region of the Iranian cities of Deregez, Khakester, and Kelat. More than 30 villages in this region were reduced to piles of debris under which many people lost their lives. There was a multitude of surface fissures of diverse direction and width. The force of the earthquake at its epicenter is rated at intensity 9-10.

Damage form the Ashgabat Earthquake in 1948

Tens of thousands of people were killed and injured in this earthquake. All the private and public buildings in many of the villages around the city were destroyed, and most of them collapsed. The intensity of the earthquake in the villages of Kara-Tokmak, Kuru-Gaudan, Annau, Kurtli, and others is estimated not less than 9. [Source: NOAA]

In Kuru-Gaudan, 25 kilometers southeast of Ashkhabad, ..."more than 10 new springs appeared. ... The water level in the wells increased 2 meters. A spring to the west of the village quintupled its output.... In the eastern part of the village the water pipes burst; pipes swelled in several places owing to the compression of the ground... Displacements of 90 centimeters in depth occurred on the tops of hills, on watersheds, and on the peak areas of slopes. Fissures measured up to 60 08 in width". "The fissures extended hundreds of meters in length."

Ye. M. Butovskaya writes about the destruction in Kuru-Gaudan: "The rupture and thrust of one part of a pipeline onto another over a length of three m were not uncommon. Waterlines swelled to a height of 1 meter; roofs there flung frame cattle sheds to a distance of several meters in a northeast-southwest direction; ... monolith brick columns were sheared in 70 x 80 centimeters sections." Many reports describe the falling of heavy commodity trains, which were thrown from the railroad tracks in the Ashkhabad region and the Annau station, and some give a detailed engineering analysis of the falling of monuments and brick columns, and the tilting of a large iron-concrete elevator.

Due to censorship by the national government, the Ashgabat earthquake was not much reported in the USSR's media. Historians tend to agree that the ban on reporting the extent of the earthquake casualties and damages did not allow the Soviet government to allocate enough financial resources to adequately respond to the disaster. US Admiral Ellis M. Zacharias, former Deputy Chief of The Office Of Naval Intelligence, on his radio show Secret Missions (twice, on December 12, 1948, and on September 26, 1949), purported that the cause of the earthquake was the first Soviet atomic bomb test. [Source: Wikipedia +]

According to memoirs of survivors, the city's infrastructure was badly damaged, with the exception of water pipes. Electricity was restored six days after the earthquake. The railway station began functioning on the third day. Aid to victims, as well as restoration of basic needs and infrastructure, was provided by the Red Army. This earthquake killed future Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov's mother (his father having died during World War II) and the rest of his family, leaving him an orphan. +

Desert Hell in Turkmenistan Been Burning for More Than 40 Years

In the Turkmenistan desert, a crater dubbed "The Door to Hell" has been burning for decades. Natasha Geiling wrote in smithsonian.com: “The Darvaza gas crater, nicknamed by locals "The Gates of Hell,"” is renowned for “its sinister burning flames. it. Located in the Karakum Desert of central Turkmenistan (a little over 150 miles from Ashgabat. The pit attracts hundreds of tourists each year. It also attracts nearby desert wildlife—reportedly, from time to time local spiders are seen plunging into the pit by the thousands, lured to their deaths by the glowing flames. [Source: Natasha Geiling, smithsonian.com, May 20, 2014 *-*]

“So how did this fiery inferno end up in the middle of a desert in Turkmenistan? In 1971, when the republic was still part of the Soviet Union, a group of Soviet geologists went to the Karakum in search of oil fields. They found what they thought to be a substantial oil field and began drilling. Unfortunately for the scientists, they were drilling on top of a cavernous pocket of natural gas which couldn't support the weight of their equipment. The site collapsed, taking their equipment along with it—and the event triggered the crumbly sedimentary rock of the desert to collapse in other places too, creating a domino-effect that resulted in several open craters by the time all was said and done. *-*

The largest of these craters measures about 230-feet across and 65-feet deep. Reportedly, no one was injured in the collapse, but the scientists soon had another problem on their hands: the natural gas escaping from the crater. Natural gas is composed mostly of methane, which, though not toxic, does displace oxygen, making it difficult to breathe. This wasn't so much an issue for the scientists, but for the animals that call the Karakum Desert home—shortly after the collapse, animals roaming the area began to die. The escaping methane also posed dangers due to its flammability—there needs to be just five percent methane in the air for an explosion to potentially take place. So the scientists decided to light the crater on fire, hoping that all the dangerous natural gas would burn away in a few weeks' time. *-*

“It's not as outlandish as it sounds—in oil and natural gas drilling operations, this happens all the time to natural gas that can't be captured. Unlike oil, which can be stored in tanks indefinitely after drilling, natural gas needs to be immediately processed—if there's an excess of natural gas that can't be piped to a processing facility, drillers often burn the natural gas to get rid of it. It's a process called "flaring," and it wastes almost a million dollars of worth of natural gas each day in North Dakota alone. But unlike drillers in North Dakota or elsewhere, the scientists in Turkmenistan weren't dealing with a measured amount of natural gas—scientists still don't know just how much natural gas is feeding the burning crater—so what was supposed to be a few-week burn has turned into almost a half-century-long desert bonfire. *-*

“After visiting the crater in 2010, Turkmenistan's president Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, worried that the fire would threaten the country's ability to develop nearby gas fields, ordered local authorities to come up with a plan for filling the crater in. No action has been taken, however, and the crater continues to burn, attracting unsuspecting wildlife and international tourists. *-*

“To visit the Darvaza gas crater, it's best to go at night, when the fire can be seen from miles away. The crater is located about 161 miles (about a 4 hour drive) from the Turkmen capital Ashgabat. Tours can be booked through agents in Ashgabat. Alternatively, some companies offer more structured tours of the surrounding area, with the Darvaza crater included (such as this tour, by The Geographical Society of New South Wales).” *-*

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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